Thursday, December 5, 2013

9 Great, Fun to Read Wine Books

I'm going to get in trouble for this post. I know a lot of writers who have written wine books, and none of them are on this list.

It's not the top 10 wine books of the year, or the most important wine books. It's just 9 wine books I really enjoyed reading. They'll make good gifts and if you haven't read them, it's about time.

There aren't any general guides to wine. After you know a certain amount about wine, those cease being fun to read. I might give them a favorable review, but I wouldn't dream about being on a long international flight with just that book to keep me company. I do feel that way about all of these books with one exception, which I'll note.

In alphabetical order:

The Billionaire's Vinegar

There's a fascinating cast of characters in this true story of wine counterfeiting. It's not just the forger Hardy Rodenstock; we also spend time with wine expert Michael Broadbent, who certified some of Rodenstock's fakes, and even meet critics like Jancis Robinson who praised them. Broadbent sued publisher Random House for defamation of character in Britain, which has very anti-author libel laws. Random House settled, paid damages, and removed the book from the UK market, but the book was not edited. Movie rights were optioned and Brad Pitt was originally lined up to star, but he walked away and it's still stuck in development. I wonder who he would have played: Rodenstock the counterfeiter? Bill Koch, who finances Tea Party causes when he's not paying to investigate wine fraud? I'd like to see Pitt play a bottle of wine.

The Botanist and the Vintner

A terrific true story of the fight in the 1870s to save wine grapes from the very real threat of being wiped off most of the planet by a new, deadly and apparently unstoppable biological threat. Just figuring out that the culprit was phylloxera was hard enough, because by the time a vine looked dead, the tiny insects had moved on. And then, with a huge cash prize from the French government on offer, scientists raced to figure out its 18-stage life cycle in order to find some way to kill it. You know what? They still haven't. British author Christy Campbell takes you back to those panicked times when people thought fine wine was disappearing forever.

The House of Mondavi

An American family business with a tragic arc: the King Lear of wine. Robert Mondavi's eternal optimism, hard work and fascination with the latest techniques and technology not only made himself a household name; he elevated all of Napa Valley to the status it has today. But the empire he built fell so quickly. Robert Mondavi dreamed of establishing a family dynasty like the great wineries of Europe, whose scions were his friends and partners, but his fiscal hubris and inability to get his two sons to work together put the company beyond family control after one generation. Wall Street Journal business writer Julia Flynn Siler understands the numbers but focuses on the people.

The Initiates

A very common idea for authors or documentary filmmakers is to spend a year in the life of a vineyard and/or winery. But most of them are deadly boring: it's bud break! It's veraison! Harvest time! Yawn. Seems exciting when you're there, but for readers and viewers, it's literally watching leaves grow. I've read and seen this basic story done many times but never have I been as entertained and felt as drawn into it as by this graphic novel by Etienne Davodeau, one of France's leading comic artists. Davodeau knows nothing about wine at the start, so you learn the ropes of day-to-day farmwork as he does; you can practically feel the sweat and exhaustion, and the occasional exultation. His best drawings are more beautiful and evocative than even the best vineyard photos. And the vintner he chooses to work with has a good story to tell, slowly revealed.

Napa: The Story of an American Eden

Published in 1990, James Conaway's social history of Napa Valley seems even more prescient now. Most of the big Napa names he introduces are old now, but many are still active (and some of them hate this book.) Even then, many battle lines were drawn that still exist today: Land preservationists vs. people who want to build on their slice of paradise. New image-seekers vs. the old guard of hard-working wineries. Conservative farm country social mores vs. people who want to shake things up. This book will really add context to your next drive up Highway 29.

The Widow Clicquot

For many years, author Tilar Mazzeo obsessively sought details of the life of the widow ("veuve") Clicquot of Champagne fame. She's meticulously honest about what she did and didn't learn, and at times that's frustrating. The widow left no diary, few of her personal letters survive, and none of her contemporaries wrote stories rich with personal insight. Mazzeo had to settle for business records; she knew what the widow did, but not how she felt. I still enjoyed the book; Mazzeo draws a fascinating portrait of Champagne in the early 1800s, when the wines were as sweet as dessert wines are today, cloudy and prone to exploding. The widow took daring risks, like violating a wartime embargo, walling up her bubbly to keep it from German and French troops, but giving it out to invading Russian officers because she thought she was creating a market. Emotionally incomplete, but still a fascinating story.

The Wild Vine

Pinot Noir may be more delicious, and Chardonnay more ubiquitous, and Cabernet Sauvignon more highly rated, but none of them has quite as interesting a story to tell as Norton, which is America's best contribution to the world of fine wine grape varieties. We're lucky to have Norton; it was the product of an experimental vineyard in Virginia to try to come up with a grape that would survive, before anyone realized climate wasn't the only problem for vitis vinifera on the East Coast. It migrates to Missouri and wins a gold medal at a Vienna exhibition in 1873. It's almost eradicated by Prohibition, but kept alive by backwoods bootleggers. We are now living in the era of Norton's rebirth, such as it is, and its main advocate, Jenni McCloud, has a story almost as interesting as the grape itself. I've had McCloud's wines; she treats Norton like Pinot Noir and coaxes great depth and complexity from it, just like this book by Todd Kliman.

Wine and War

When the Nazis invaded France, they knew what treasures their neighbors had and they wanted them. That most definitely included wine; wine production went on throughout the entire occupation. Hitler didn't drink, but Hermann Goering fancied himself an enophile, and he wanted the finest wines from his cellar. Not only that, ordinary stormtroopers wanted Champagne every night. But the French didn't want the Nazis drinking the good stuff, and went to extraordinary and dangerous lengths to hide, disguise or alter it. Donald and Petie Kladstrup deliver plenty of good anecdotes. They revisit some of the same turf in their book on Champagne, which I also enjoyed, but read this one first.

Wine Grapes

This is the only reference book on this list, and it's easily the most expensive book here; you can probably buy the other eight books combined for the same price.* I would not bring this book on an airplane to read; it's heavy enough to be an assault weapon. And I wouldn't give this book to a casual wine drinker. This is for the hardcore wine geek. But I've had it a year now and I'm not tired of it. Where did Roussanne come from? How much Kalecik Karasi is planted in the world? Is Pinot Blanc genetically the same as Pinot Gris? I move this book off my desk every couple of weeks, it spends a week or two in exile, and then I just have to know if Grey Riesling is the same as Riesling. A perfect gift for the winemaker in your life, and maybe even more enjoyable because you won't read it all at once, and therefore will never be done with it.

* If you buy any of these books from Amazon from the links I provide, I get a small percentage. Thanks, and happy holidays!

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Michael Chelus said...

Great compilation! I've been meaning to read a bunch of those for a while!

Unknown said...

I've read "House of Mondavi," "Billionaire's Vinegar" and "Wild Vines" and also would recommend them. "House of Mondavi" in particular is very well-written. Also would recommend "Vineyard at the End of the World," which is about the rebirth of Malbec in Argentina.

Krista L. said...

This is a great list - I'm always looking for wine books to pick up that aren't just reference guides. I'm learning there are many fantastic stories from the wine world just waiting to be discovered. Have just added all of these to my wish list!

Joe Roberts said...

Really strong picks, I've loved reading the majority of those books.